A proposal to allow stronger beer in grocery and convenience stores received preliminary support from the Utah Senate on Monday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, would allow beer up to 4.8 percent alcohol by weight (ABW) in stores and on tap, up from 3.2 percent. Currently any brew stronger than 3.2 ABW must be purchased in state-run liquor stores.
Stevenson is running the bill as some big brewers like Anheuser-Busch scale back production of 3.2 percent beer products. Over the past few years, states including Colorado and Oklahoma have raised the limit on beer sold in their stores, eliminating demand for low-gravity beer.
“A lot of the manufacturers are taking products off the market. They’re actually reducing the 3.2 products because they have to be specially manufactured or diluted,” Stevenson said.
The Senate voted 21-8 in support of the bill during its first debate. It will have one more Senate vote before going to the Utah House of Representatives.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, strongly opposed the move. In the past, Hillyard said he has run legislation to try to block sales of refrigerated beer after 10 p.m. and worried Stevenson’s bill would increase access to alcohol for minors.
“I don’t care what other states do. I’m concerned about my kids, “ he said, adding that he thinks the proposal would be a “slippery slope” toward wine sold in Utah grocery stores.
Sens. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, and Dan McCay, R-Riverton, switched to “no” votes Monday after initially supporting the bill during its Feb. 7 committee hearing.
Davis said he changed his mind because several small breweries in his district asked him to reconsider.
A trade organization for local craft breweries said it supports raising Utah’s beer limit, but opposes Stevenson’s bill because it “would benefit out-of-state breweries at the expense of small, locally owned breweries who employ thousands of Utahns,” said Utah Brewers Guild Executive Director Nicole Dicou.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prohibits alcohol consumption among its members, also opposes the bill.
But some conservative lawmakers used free-market rationale to argue in favor of the bill.
“This bill will enhance our grocery store and convenience store experience,” said Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George. “It’s already affecting their business.”
Some products, including six-pack bottles of Corona, have already been pulled from store shelves.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she spent several years working in the tourism industry and voted in favor of the bill.
“The perception is that Utah has crazy laws. I think this bill only decreases that perception,” Riebe said.